State Employees Buck Another Salary Freeze

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – A key union leader for Montana state and university employees says he will not bargain another salary freeze with the governor — drawing a line in the sand amid what is expected to be a very tight budget process.

The governor’s office responded by saying that tough economic times means everyone — including state employees — need to have reduced expectations. Budget Director David Ewer did not rule out the possibility of a pay freeze.

Eric Feaver, the forceful voice at the legislature and elsewhere for an influential union that represents about 3,000 state employees, told members in a newsletter that they don’t deserve another two years of static pay.

“If unable to make a salary gain when we next meet the governor’s representatives at the pre-budget bargaining table, we will take our chances with the next legislature,” wrote Feaver, who leads the MEA-MFT union. “Damn the considerable political risks.”

The Montana Public Employees Association, which represents about 3,500 state employees and 1,500 university employees, said it will seek the same thing in joint negotiations.

“We are all in agreement that we can’t ask our members to take another pay freeze,” said executive director Quinton Nyman. “People have been doing more work for less money, with fewer coworkers, and there has to be some compensation for them and we are willing to run that risk by taking it through the session.”

Traditionally, the unions negotiate a new two-year contract with the governor as the executive branch crafts a new budget proposal for the Legislature. That means final details in such negotiations would crystalize this fall so Gov. Brian Schweitzer could take a deal to lawmakers in 2011.

Last time around Feaver and others bargained a pay freeze in exchange for help with health insurance as the recession hit and the state budget situation tightened. That deal was necessary at the time, Feaver said in an interview, but union members won’t take another freeze that would lead to four years of static pay.

Ewer pointed out that some states are in far worse shape than Montana, and have made employees take pay cuts, furloughs or layoffs.

Last month, Schweitzer told the state’s other large union, the Montana Public Employees Association, that they won’t be laid off or furloughed and that he expected Montana would come out of the recession sooner and stronger than the rest of the country.

Ewer would only go so far as to say that he is working to avoid mass layoffs as he puts together the governor’s budget. He said the 2011 session will be a challenge.

“I have to look at many options when I am building the budget,” Ewer said.

Without a deal with the governor, union negotiations would take place amid the hectic — and often divisive — legislative budget process where party leaders usually end up making key decisions in the waning moments of the session.

“Bargaining with the legislature has got to be about the worst possible outcome, but it may be what we have to do,” Feaver said in an interview.

Partisan control of the legislature, split sharply in recent years, will be determined in fall’s elections — which means the union may have to go to Republicans if it doesn’t get a deal with the governor, a Democrat.

“I am sure the governor’s representative might tell us the exact same thing,” Feaver said. “Right now I don’t see me changing the message. That said, every message has a shelf life.”